Pennsylvania judge raises $427,000 for uncontested race

Reuters News

10/4/2011 3:53:46 PM - Reuters News

By Carlyn Kolker

NEW YORK (Reuters) - What does it cost to hold onto a spot on a state supreme court bench?

When the bench is in Pennsylvania, more than $427,000.

With a month to go in an uncontested retention election, J. Michael Eakin, a justice on Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, has raised about $427,000 so far for his campaign to keep his seat.

Eakin, a Republican who was first elected to the Pennsylvania high court in 2001, faces a simple up or down vote on November 8 by the state's electorate.

While Eakin's race is by definition uncontested, he may be gathering a war chest in case there is a last-minute effort to oust him, according to Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit

that advocates for impartial state courts.

"I suspect that the reason that his campaign is raising money is just in case there is an attack, he would have resources to fashion a response," she said.

"I haven't heard about any controversial opinions that Justice Eakin has authored that would make him a target, and I haven't sensed an overall anti-judge mood in the state," she said.

Eakin was unavailable for comment.

Many states hold retention elections as a way to give citizens a say on approving or disapproving of sitting judges while avoiding contentious, partisan elections.

In some states, retention elections have descended into bitter battles. In 2005, for the first time in the state's history, voters in Pennsylvania ousted a high court justice after voters expressed their anger over a pay raise for judges and elected officials.

And in Iowa three supreme court justices were voted out of office last year after voters were dissatisfied with a decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

Judicial elections have become a big business across the states, with fundraising on high court candidates doubling in the decade between 2000 to 2009 from the decade that preceded it, according to Justice at Stake, a Washington-based organization that advocates against money in judicial politics.

Pennsylvania was third-highest on the list for total spending on high court elections, behind Alabama and Ohio, with candidates spending more than $22 million during the decade ending in 2009, according to the group.

The last time there was a judicial retention election in Pennsylvania, in 2007, Republican Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor raised about $627,000 in the whole election season, according to Follow the Money, which tracks state election fundraising. He won the election with 67 percent of voters choosing to retain him.

In the Eakin race, there is more than a month remaining, and contributions are likely to rise as the campaign season wraps up and Eakin holds more fundraisers, said Marks.

The most recent reporting period, from June 6 to September 19, was the most fruitful for Eakin yet, with Eakin's fund Friends of Mike Eakin raising $254,000, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of State.

Pennsylvania does not have any limits on campaign contributions from individuals and political action committees, and does not have any rules requiring judicial recusal when a judge hears a case involving a contributor.

The American Bar Association in August passed guidelines urging individual states to strengthen their standards and procedures for judicial disqualification.

(Reporting by Carlyn Kolker)